Thursday, January 31, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing: or the Starbucks $1 Cup of Coffee

So, it was all over the blogosphere last week, that Starbucks was going to sell its short brewed coffee (8 oz) for $1 and offer free refills. Well, Starbucks Gossip was on the story, as were some of the finance blogs and the news magazines (Business Week and Newsday.

Well, what a non-starter. For such a widely distributed story, it turns out that is was only a one-week test, and only at select stores. How do I know? I tried to buy a short coffee for a buck today! No such luck, it's $1.40. So, I got a Tall instead.

Moral of the story? Don't make purchases based on something you read on someone's blog.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Menu Planning to Save Time and Money

Cathy, over at Chief Family Officer writes about menu planning today. There are so many advantages to planning your menus! For me personally, having planned menus helps me avoid impluse purchases. You know, you go to the grocery store and my, that asparagus sure looks good. And it's on sale! So you buy some, forgetting that your fridge already has enough veggies for the week and buying more means something will go bad.

I use a tool for menu planning called the Menu Mailer. Created by Leanne Ely, the author of the book Saving Dinner: The Menus, Recipes, and Shopping Lists to Bring Your Family Back to the Table, the Menu Mailer is a weekly email containing a menu for the week, along with a shopping list, separated by type of food. For example, all the meat is in one section, the produce, canned goods, etc. Also noted by each ingredient is the day it is used, so if you're not making one of the dishes, you can easily avoid buying the items for it.

I found I was saving money on my grocery bill because I stuck to a list. With the Menu Mailer, dinner was decided already, there was no last minute fuss or desperate dive into the pantry to look for a package of pasta and some jarred sauce (Scarpetta Barely Bolognese, 20-Ounce Jar (Pack of 4)).

Sure, you say, but for $30, I can buy a couple of cookbooks. Why pay for this? Why? Well, Leanne has done all the work! She's done the shopping list, created the recipes, and put it all together in an easy-to-use package. I balked at first, but after actually using it, well, money well spent. I know I saved more than $30 in the first month, just by avoiding impluse dinner buys.

You can try a sample menu, to see if you like it. In addition to the Regular mailer (which is what we use), she also offers a Heart Healthy option, a Low-Carb, a Body Clutter menu to go with her book, written with Flylady Marla Cilley, Body Clutter: Love Your Body, Love Yourself, and a few others. I've been wanting to try the Crock-Pot menu...

Monday, January 28, 2008

It's Tax Time!

We have a tradition in our family of doing our taxes on Super Bowl Sunday. We keep the game on, and work on the taxes during the pre-game show, and during the game itself if it's not going well for the side we're rooting for (this year, we're for the Giants).

Are you ready for tax time? Do you use your computer to do your taxes or are you atraditionalist and prefer to use the paper forms? I always know it's tax time when I stop in at the local library and they have three large racks of paper tax forms.

Do you have your tax software? Some of the office supply stores offer good deals on other products when purchased with tax software. I use Tax Cut, mostly because way back when we changed our IRAs from regular to Roth, Tax Cut was the only tax software that could accomodate that.

I live in Washington state, where there is no state income tax. We have a killer sales tax though, so imagine how happy we were when Congress (finally) decided that we could deduct the sales tax we paid, to make if fair for us in comparison with those folks in states with an income tax.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Should You Buy an EBook Reader?

Ebook readers have been around for over a decade. I remember attending a Book Festival here in Seattle, and seeing several booths featuring ebook readers. I was vaguely interested, but I am old-fashioned and I do like my paper. So, I never went any further toward learning more about them.

The latest entrant into the ebook reader market is Amazon, the Internet King of Books. Amazon's reader is called the Kindle, and it's quite nice to look at. They've chosen white for its case colour and it looks, to me, very retro-futuristic, a la 2001 or Minority Report. You can buy books for it, or even magazines and newspapers (the New York Times sans the newsprint marks on your fingers). It features an internet link, allowing for remote purchases. Say you're at Starbucks, hanging out and you just finished a great book and want another right away. Well, Kindle will get you one.

I think it's expensive. It's about $400, and that's before buying any books. Still, if you like to read books on the go and can tolerate the interface, it might save you money (and will certainly save you space) in the long run.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Markets are Down, Time to Buy

So, seriously, the market is heading for a downturn. Housing down, stocks in general down, we're bleeding money to the Iraq war (over $250 million dollars PER DAY). So, what's the average Joe or Jane investor to do?

DON'T panic sell. It happens with every market downturn. People panic when they see their accounts going down and they sell. If that's your pot of money that you need to use in a year or two for something (college, car or home purchase, etc), well, selling might be the right decision. You may need to lock in your gains and avoid further losses. But, if that's your retirement account that's going down and you're nowhere near retirement age? Let it ride!

DO purchase bargains. When the market goes down, it's like a fire sale for those with some free cash they don't need to access for some years. If you have some sitting around in a savings account, now might be the time to take care of setting up an investment account. For those with a Costco card, Sharebuilder (now owned by ING) is offering a bonus of up to $90 on a new account (you must make a deposit and one trade to secure the bonus).

DON'T become obsessive about checking up on your account. If you've chosen your investments with care, you'll have chosen stocks and funds that you like enough to hold for the long term. If that's the case, just let them be. For buy and hold investors who aren't planning purchases, times like these are a good time to take a break from market watching. Hey, the Super Bowl is coming up, how about those Giants?

DO keep an eye on the big picture. The market goes up and it goes down. It's a cycle. Consider doing some reading on historical ups and downs. Read about the Great Depression, pick up a book by one of the great economists (here's a cool timeline, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco) or learn about another country's economy, say South Korea or Taiwan.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Prospective Homeowners Avoid Subprime Meltdown

"Homebuyers sidestep subprime trap
By Joanne Cleaver Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — Keith and Vicky Newson appeared destined to become subprime-lending statistics.

Three years ago, at the height of the housing and lending boom, the longtime renters and parents of three children started house hunting in Milwaukee in earnest.

They quickly found real-estate and mortgage brokers intent on persuading them to take on more house and more debt than they thought they could afford."

I love this couple! They knew what they could afford, and despite temptation from all sides (real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and banks) they stuck to their budget and bought a house they could actually afford. They saved up money to cover at least the first three months of payments, so that if something happened (emergency repair etc.) they wouldn't be faced with financial disaster.

The real question is, why are people like the Newsons so rare?

Read the whole article here.